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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

Huffington Post, though popular, spreads itself thin

August 27, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

DENVER — The gravitational pull of Planet Huffington drew them in relentlessly in this convention-besieged city: news anchors, U.S. senators, Hollywood luminaries and everyday folks, orbiting like so many moons.

Everyone here at the Democratic National Convention, it seems, can't wait to trade a greeting, an air kiss or a little banter with Arianna Huffington, founder of the most popular blog in America.

I confess I'm as charmed and amused by the beguiling Ms. H as anyone but also slightly queasy about whether her Huffington Post will ever offer original content and reporting that lives up to the hype and pretty packaging.

The site has earned its niche as a vibrant aggregator for the political left, to be sure. It breaks news sporadically, gathers the best work from mainstream news organizations and occasionally has landed a scoop that shifted the dialogue in campaign '08.

Go to Huffington Post to find out about John McCain's ties to controversial evangelical pastor John Hagee or to learn about another politician's gaffe. Linger, if you feel the need, for volumes of political commentary, which can range from former Sen. Gary Hart's screed against Hillary Rodham Clinton to frothy musings about hope from faded song bird Cyndi Lauper.

The site made its biggest splash last spring, when one of its citizen bloggers gained access to a "closed press" fundraiser in San Francisco and reported Barack Obama's inartful comments about economically distressed voters, saying they sometimes salved their bitterness with guns, religion and attacks on people unlike themselves. "Bitter-gate," without doubt, will live well into the fall campaign.

Huffington dropped a bomblet of her own in May, when she posted a story recalling a conversation with a disgruntled couple who confided they had not voted for George W. Bush for president in 2000 because of his campaign's nasty attacks. The couple, John and Cindy McCain, vehemently denied the claim.

Huffington regulars Tom Edsall and Sam Stein have also come to be regular sources of sharp political stories. Rachel Sklar offers quick and lively commentary on the media. And endless contributors, many of them dropping by this week in Denver, provide Huff Post a heft of contributions well beyond what 46 full-time and 15 part-time staffers could produce on their own.

Just don't expect any time soon to find America's No. 1 blog digging deep for the toughest stories. No, it's still newspapers and a few other outlets that are providing the heavy excavation and producing reports about, for example, secret terrorist prisons operated by the U.S. government, warrantless wiretapping of American citizens and the substandard care of troops in one of our most prestigious military hospitals.

Joshua Levy, who tracked campaign reporting closely for TechPresident.com before moving on to another website, said the Huffington Post needed to do more work of its own to become something more than "a Drudge Report for the left."

"There has been a major concern that they are not doing the kind of hard-hitting investigative or educational journalism they could," Levy said. "That takes lots of time and reporting and lots of resources."

While rushing from one forum to the next Tuesday, Huffington said she would like her site to do that kind of reporting. But just like news dinosaurs in print and on the airwaves, the Queen of the Bloggers is struggling to expand her advertising, along with her audience, which now numbers 4 million unique visitors a month. (At the top of the news list, still bigger than any blog, is the New York Times website, which recently recorded more than 19 million unique visitors in a month.)

"The real question is who is going to be paying for all of this work," Huffington said. "Where is the advertising and how quickly does it move online and how quickly do the rates increase. That is going to be key for all of us."

Another infusion of capital, $10 million to $20 million, is in the works, Huffington said Tuesday, to hire more reporters and editors and upgrade the site's technology. She would like to beef up political and media coverage and put at least one reporter in each of two dozen cities by the end of 2009.

Up at 6 a.m. after four hours' sleep Tuesday, Huffington dashed between panels before a dinner with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Then she was off to a party hosted by Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and other media names.

In between, she crammed in a visit to her Huff Post Oasis, a small, darkened space off the teeming Big Tent exhibit area. The Oasis is a place where her growing legion of friends stop for raw chocolate smoothies, vegetarian pate, massage and facials.

A small squad of assistants urged Huffington on to her next stop, but she seemed unharried by the crush of her schedule. She wanted to finish a tour of the Oasis, where a few visitors curled up on the floor in yoga poses, their practice somewhat incongruous with three camera crews traipsing around the small space.

Huffington would not leave until she had given me a brief tour and checked to make sure that Will.I.Am and Charlie Rose, two of her pals and panel guests, would get a massage.

The Queen of the Bloggers did not offer a hint of irony when she said the Oasis was promoting her philosophy (and coincidentally a new Huff Post "living" section) that "we all need to learn how to unplug and recharge."

That said, she ran off for another panel discussion, her day not even half over.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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